Providers spend a great deal of their time treating cancer, but how much time is being spent treating the patient?
Whether it is due to increasing awareness of our bodies, or by our increasing knowledge and better technology, more and more patients are being diagnosed with cancer every day. According to the American Cancer Society, there will be an estimated 1,685,210 new cancer cases diagnosed this year alone. Patients with cancer receive a battery of tests, including blood draws, biopsies and imaging in order to stage their disease and specify their treatment. Days, weeks and unfortunately, months go by as we medical professionals treat the known — cancer. Yet, are we taking the time to treat the unknown?
What is the unknown? It is a series of questions patients may have, but are too afraid to ask, or worse, are not allowed the opportunity to ask. Questions such as:
“What side effects should I expect during chemotherapy?”
“After I have surgery I won't have to worry about my cancer anymore, right?”
“Mr. So-and-so has the same type of leukemia as mine and his treatment didn't work. Does that mean mine won’t either?”
“How long can I expect to live?”
These are difficult questions and often, there are no definitive answers. Maybe we do not always have the answers. Yet, instead of shying away from these challenging moments with our patients, we can seize the opportunity to help treat the patient’s unknown. Through my practice and time with my patients, I have learned a great deal with regards to navigating through the unknown. Let me share a few tips with you that I hope you will find helpful in your practice.
First, I have found it extremely important to stress to each patient how unique their cancer is. Patients are often seated in crowded waiting areas and infusion units. Perhaps, they may receive treatment right alongside someone with the same diagnosis. Yet, each patient's cancer, therapy and outcome may be dramatically different from the next. It is important that these differences are discussed with the patient. Though difficult, each patient must focus on their individual journey.
Additionally, we should not be afraid to call on the help of others, such as health care specialists, social workers, clergy and cancer survivors for assistance in helping our patients navigate through their unknowns. Often patients look to their hematology/oncology provider first for a myriad of problems, simply because they spend so much time under our care and because we get to know the patient and their caregivers so personally through that time together. They may ask us questions we might simply not know the answer to. We owe it to our patients to lead them to others who may be able to find the answer, or at least provide necessary support.
Finally, taking the opportunity with the patient to ask them just a few questions could truly help address the unknowns. Questions include: "Are there anymore questions I can answer for you today?" "Do you have any thoughts or concerns that you would like to talk about?" "Is there anything on your mind regarding your diagnosis that I can help you with?"
Maybe these suggestions sound cliché, but perhaps not. Sometimes it is the simple things we can do as providers that will make the biggest impact.